Monday, March 30, 2020

Why Include an Executive Summary When the RFP Doesn't Ask for One?

The worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is unfortunately still in front of us. How long this will last or what impact it will ultimately have on our businesses, no one can know with any certainty. Yet I'm reasonably confident in suggesting that now is a good time to consider how your firm can get better in bringing in new business. There will undoubtedly be fewer sales opportunities for awhile. What can you do to improve your win rate?

When it comes to proposals, there are a number of relatively simple, yet largely neglected, steps for differentiating your proposals from the competition—making them distinctly client-centered, telling the story of how you'll deliver success, keeping them concise and skimmable—to name a few. Another effective step that most ignore is including a compelling executive summary.

Why should your proposals have an executive summary? Well, for one thing, there's a strong consensus in favor of them among the experts. A sampling:
  • "The executive summary is the single most important part of your proposal. It's the only part that's likely to be read by everybody involved in making a decision." — Tom Sant, probably the best known expert on writing business proposals
  • "The Executive Summary is often the most important section in the proposal. It sets the tone for individual evaluators and are sometimes the only pages read by decision makers." — Shipley Associates, a leading proposal consulting firm (I was trained by Shipley and was briefly under contract as one of their consultants)
  • "The Executive Summary might be the only thing we read." — Gary Coover, author of the book Secrets of the Selection Committee and former member of numerous private and governmental selection committees
  • "The Executive Summary is your most effective and important selling piece and deserves all the effort and attention you can give it." — Robert Hamper and Sue Baugh, authors of the book Handbook for Writing Proposals
So, you should include an executive summary in your proposals because it might be the only part that the entire selection committee reads, it sets the tone for the rest of the proposal (hopefully the right tone!), and it can be a powerful influence in your firm being selected. To this list of reasons I'll add the following:
  • An executive summary gives you a greater measure of message control. RFPs tend to nudge everyone in the direction of sounding alike. That's my observation, having reviewed thousands of A/E firm proposals over the years. More importantly, clients agree, based on my conversations with many of them.
  • An executive summary enables you to lead with client focus. A truly client-centered proposal has an edge over all others that focus instead on the offerer. Yes, they're simply responding to the RFP's instructions to feature their qualifications and experience. An executive summary, on the other hand, allows you to open your proposal with the spotlight directed where it should be—on the client.
  • The executive summary is the best place to deliver your value proposition. This is the persuasive business case for selecting your firm versus your competitors. By outlining your business case in the executive summary, you're focusing on outcomes that you know constitute the client's definition of success. This is often quite different from the formal "selection criteria" listed in the RFP.
As you've probably detected, I have an uneasy alliance with client RFPs. I certainly advise being fully compliant with the RFP, but not in the manner of passively "answering" its directives as you might answer a questionnaire or fill out a form. The latter seems the favored approach for most proposals I review. By contrast, I advocate what I call assertive compliance where you satisfy RFP requirements without sacrificing best practice and common sense.

This leads us back to executive summaries. Why don't most firms include one? Because the RFP didn't ask for it! So does that omission comprise a prohibition on including an executive summary in your proposal? Do you take a risk by including one? Not in my experience.

Over a 20-year period, I served as the proposal manager for a national environmental firm and then a regional engineering firm, meaning I was ultimately responsible for all aspects of the planning and preparation of key proposals (typically with contract values in excess of $1 million). We won 75% of those proposals, for combined fees totaling over $300 million.

I always included an executive summary, except on rare occasions when the RFP specifically excluded one. And...the RFPs almost never asked for one. In over 200 proposal debriefings, there was never a situation where we were criticized for including an executive summary. On the contrary, it was evident that clients consistently read them (in contrast with cover letters, which are often ignored) and, in many cases, they played a significant role in our being selected.

I'll take those odds. What about you?

As noted earlier, a good executive summary sets the tone for the rest of your proposal. It can also say something about your firm. Passively answering the RFP can suggest your firm is merely an order taker—tell us what to do and we'll do it. It occurred to me recently that both firms mentioned above more commonly inhabited the realm of trusted advisor. We included executive summaries because they provided us optimum space to feature what we thought needed to be said—whether mentioned in the RFP or not.

Our industry has fought long and hard for Qualifications-Based Selection, but I must confess I'm not a fan (I know, that's heresy to some). My biggest complaint is that it doesn't align with how research shows buyers make decisions. People don't really buy products and services; they buy what they believe those products and services will do for them. Similarly, buyers aren't inclined to pick vendors or service providers based on what they've done for others, but what they anticipate the provider will do for them. Past experience and qualifications are simply evidence that the provider can deliver what they promise.

This gets muddled when QBS is applied to the buying process. Yet I remain convinced that most buyers of A/E services still select firms based on the promise, not the past. Many RFPs seemingly constrain our ability to adequately feature that promise. Ask for a work plan or scope of work, and most firms will respond with just that—essentially a list (in narrative form) of tasks to be performed. We become so conditioned to this response that even when the RFP requests a "project approach," many firms pass on the promise and provide just an SOW.

A well-developed executive summary swims against this tide, giving you 2-4 pages at the start of your proposal to succinctly tell the client what they really want to hear—that you understand their needs, what outcomes will define success, and the best approach to deliver those outcomes. Will you pass on this opportunity because you weren't asked?

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Management Communication Advice for Anxious Times Like These

Note: This is an update of an article I wrote in 2008 in the midst of the financial crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic may not yet constitute a serious "problem" or "challenge" for your firm as references below suggest, but it likely will become one. So I think the language fits what you're ultimately going to be facing.

Even in the best of times, management communications with staff are often problematic. I've conducted and reviewed several employee surveys and have found management-to-staff communication to be among the most commonly identified shortcomings. When a firm faces tough challenges, the need for effective communication is even more crucial. Unfortunately that's when many managers struggle most in this area.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, we enter an unprecedented time of uncertainty. How will this affect our industry? Our national economy? How should we respond? The answers remain elusive and rapidly evolving. Most A/E firms still retain a healthy backlog of work, but with growing restrictions on business activity and social interaction, will that continue? What if the federal government orders a widespread "shutdown" to try to contain the spread of the virus?

We simply cannot predict what the impacts will be. This is uncharted water. We've been through tough times before, but this one leaves many business leaders scrambling to determine what steps they should take. And as soon as they've made a decision, the situation has likely changed. Despite the uncertainty, there is one truth that holds in every crisis—good communication from management to staff is critically important.

Drawing from my experiences as a leader in economic downturns, layoffs, bankruptcies, reorganizations, mergers and acquisitions, and the like, let me offer these suggestions:

Formulate and share your response plan now. The past few days we've all received numerous emails from businesses describing how they are responding to the pandemic. Yet many A/E firms have been slow to react. The time is now to determine how you will protect your staff, serve your clients, and get the work done in the age of social distancing. Yes, you may have to update it in a few days, but getting the word out now communicates that firm leaders have things (reasonably) under control. Don't wait until the crisis actually visits your firm; being proactive is the imperative these days.

Increase interaction with staff. Faced with tough challenges, many managers become distracted and distant. They're too busy dealing with problems to spend much time talking with their employees. But that's a problem in itself and it neglects one of the most important responsibilities of being a leader. In tough times, managers should increase, not decrease, communication. Effective leaders become more visible in tough times. Given the evolving nature of this crisis, more frequent and timely communication is of even greater importance.

Help other managers improve their communications. In larger firms, it's difficult for the CEO and other corporate officers to interact adequately with multiple offices or departments. Unit managers need to communicate for the company at the local level (although this doesn't replace the benefit of communication from corporate management). The CEO or other officers can help this local communication in two key ways: (1) support frequency by communicating regularly with unit managers and informing them about what needs to be communicated to staff, and (2) support consistency by providing talking points to unit managers so they can convey the same messages across the organization.

Be honest, but accentuate the positive. There's a tenuous balance to strike between being open about the problems or uncertainties your firm faces and creating an atmosphere of optimism. Too much concerning news can overwhelm and demotivate. On the other hand, too much positive spin comes across as insincere and dishonest. You must try to mix the right proportions of both. Here's my advice: Be honest about the concerns, but spend more time talking about what's being done about them.

Keep your vision and values at the forefront. Detours are easier to endure when you know where you're going. Some firms handle adversity by moving into "survival mode." It's akin to throwing the cargo overboard to help stay afloat in a storm. These firms lose sight of their vision (if they have one) and focus on the present calamities. It's easy to get stuck there. A better approach is to renew your vision and blend corrective actions with your strategy for the future. There's no need to shift from "success mode" in tough times.

It's also important to make your values a recurring theme in your communications in difficult circumstances. Why? Because your values should be an anchor in stormy seas. The economy may change; the firm may undergo changes. But the one thing that shouldn't be subject to change are those immutable principles that guide all corporate activity. Keep reminding staff what you stand for and that these things are non-negotiable. Of course, walk the talk! Strong corporate values give employees a much-needed assurance in uncertain times.

Beware of the convenience of email. Because it's easy to distribute a message across the firm via email, managers are often tempted to use it improperly. Sensitive, emotionally-charged messages are better delivered in person. If that's not practical or wise in these circumstances, video conferencing or a conference call would be the next choice. Why? Because voice tone and body language provide important context for communicating sensitive messages. It's hard to convey concern and empathy by email, for example. Plus it's beneficial to give employees the immediate opportunity to ask questions.

Another downside of email convenience is the tendency to spend too little time crafting important communications. Which leads to my next point...

Appoint a communication team to screen all potentially sensitive company-wide emails and memos. We have probably all seen important emails or memos that were unclear, misleading, inaccurate, sloppy (typos), or even inflammatory. These communications often do more harm than the good that was intended. It's a simple fact that many technical professionals, including A/E firm executives and managers, are not strong writers. Even among those who are proficient, it's still wise to have others preview important company-wide communications before they're delivered. I would suggest that CEOs have someone check all written company-wide communications from them, because any message from the top executive can be considered important.

Remember that communication is two-way. The effect of communication is not determined by how it is delivered, but by how it is received. I have sometimes been blindsided, thinking I had eloquently made my point only to find that it had been grossly misinterpreted. You've probably experienced the same thing. That's why effective management-to-staff communication must have a feedback loop. This can be done formally or informally (both is probably best). The key things are to make sure you (1) actively solicit feedback, (2) listen empathetically, and (3) respond appropriately to what you hear. If employees think you are listening and care about them, they will be more tolerant of any shortcomings in getting your message across.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Importance of Connnecting Your Work to the Client's ROI

I've long pondered the disparity in financial returns for architects and consulting engineers compared to other professional service providers. A/E professionals trail most other professionals in hourly rates, profitability, and labor multiplier. Why? Isn't our work of comparable value? Apparently not, the marketplace would suggest.

There are no doubt several factors contributing to the shortfall, but I believe that one trumps all others—business solutions are more valuable than technical solutions. Other professional services are more readily associated with business results. Clients are willing to pay extra for those services that are perceived to most directly affect their bottom-line success.

It's fair to argue that A/E professionals do indeed deliver strong business value. Our work enables new business operations, improves efficiency, helps create necessary infrastructure, reduces liabilities, strengthens balance sheets, boosts shareholder value, converts distressed properties into productive use, brings facilities into compliance, helps build public good will. Why then don't we get more credit for the business value we help create?

Two reasons are foremost, in my mind: (1) there is a gap between delivery of our services and realization of the client's return on investment and (2) we generally do a poor job articulating the connection between our work and business results —particularly on the engineering side of the business. The reality of point #1 makes the impact of point #2 all the more substantial in devaluing our services.

ROI is a critical measure of the success of a key business expenditure. Here's what we need to recognize: If a client spends $100,000 for an engineering study or design, there's a delay before the value of that investment can be realized. A/E professionals generally don't implement their study recommendations or construct their designed facilities. Therefore, when we finish our projects, they still constitute a cost to the client.

I suspect we don't fully appreciate this. We're rightfully proud of our work, and if it's technically sound and delivered on time and on budget, we proclaim the project a success—or at least our portion of the project. But the client cannot really call it a success until the ROI is realized. That comes later.
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Interestingly, client feedback data collected by Client Savvy shows that over the course of the A/E portion of a project (and even into construction contract administration) that client satisfaction generally declines until there's an uptick at the end of construction. Could the delay in ROI contribute to this trend? At the very least, we should acknowledge that our view of project success likely differs somewhat from that of the client.

So what can we do about this? It's hardly our fault that the timing of our services usually precedes the client's return on investment. We are to blame, however, for our failure to make the connection between our work and ROI more explicit. Want evidence of this? Read our websites, our proposals, and our marketing materials and see how seldom we talk about the business results of our work. We seem more interested in talking about the tasks and services we performed.

Similarly, we too often give little consideration to client business goals during the planning of our projects. Nor are they incorporated into many of our quality review processes. If our scope of work ends with the planning or design phase of the project, we may not follow it through construction and startup, or track results after the facility is in operation. In other words, we sometimes show little interest in whether our projects are truly a success.

Does failing to clearly articulate the connection between our work and the client's ROI help devalue our services? I'm convinced that it does. Thankfully, more recent project delivery models—such as design-build and P3—put A/E firms in closer proximity to the realization of ROI and, not surprisingly, tend to yield higher fees and bigger profits (for various reasons).
There's ample opportunity for your firm to differentiate itself by demonstrating a focus on delivering business results. A few tips in this regard:
  • Diagnose client needs at three levels: strategic (business), technical, people. This helps push your project managers and staff outside their technical box where they're most comfortable. It also helps them better align their project perspective with that of the client, by seeing the bigger picture.
  • Uncover the client's desired outcomes at the same three levels. Every project will have expected results relating to how it meets strategic, technical, and people needs. No, the client isn't likely thinking specifically in these terms, but breaking it down this way helps you better draw out how project success will ultimately be defined.
  • Let these outcomes drive your design process. Keep this connection at the forefront of your discussions, both internally and externally, about design or solution alternatives. Whereas technical professionals often see technical problems in need of a technical solution, this framework can help your team better envision how that technical solution will deliver business results. 
  •  Consider incorporating a business review into your QC process. The technical aspects of the project are usually the focus of A/E firm reviews, but in some cases there is great value in having a third-party review of the business aspects of the project before it goes to the client for review. That perspective might be found in your firm, or you might decide to subcontract an outside expert for the task.
  • Stay involved in the project, even after your scope is completed. At a minimum, contact the client periodically to track project progress. Once the solution is implemented or the facility is constructed, check on whether it is performing as expected. Even if you're not compensated for these ongoing conversations, it helps connect you to the realization of ROI.
  • Learn to describe your work in terms of results, not just tasks or services. Perhaps spending more time on those project descriptions can yield more benefit than just making marketing staff happy. Consider it practice in articulating the true value of your services. Work at it until it becomes natural to specifically talk about how your projects deliver client success!

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Proposal Smarts: Don't Waste Your Advantage as the Incumbent

I've reviewed a few proposals in recent months where the incumbent firm failed to win the next phase of the project or contract. So they asked me to do a postmortem. There are a variety of reasons why an incumbent might lose that have little to do with the proposal. Yet there were some common deficiencies in these proposals that probably helped contribute to the outcome.

I've written many posts here about how to build lasting client relationships. This post will focus on leveraging your strengths as the incumbent in your proposal. The fact is that among the proposals I've seen, incumbents typically fail to take full advantage of their position. Hopefully this post will help you better protect your turf in future proposals.

As the incumbent, you should have two distinct advantages: (1) you know the most about the client's project or program and (2) you have an established relationship with the client. Your proposal should reflect these advantages. Yet I'm amazed how often incumbent proposals fail to capitalize on these. Here are some of the shortcomings I've seen recently:
  • The incumbent wasn't sure which technical solution the client preferred, even though the firm had done all the upfront work. How can this happen? Believe me, it happens!
  • The incumbent failed to demonstrate in their proposal that they had any special insight into the substantial nontechnical issues associated with the project.
  • The incumbent said nothing of their strong relationship with third-party stakeholders who were crucial to the success of the project.
  • The incumbent wrote nothing in their proposal that showed familiarity with working with the client—how they would communicate, collaborate, share decision making, address inevitable problems, etc.
I could go on, but these examples will suffice. In fact, these are the most common omissions I've seen. So if your firm is the incumbent, what are some steps you can take to make your proposal darn near unbeatable?

Address any lingering service problems or relationship concerns. In some cases, the mere fact that you're having to write a proposal for the next phase is a sign of trouble. Be proactive in addressing concerns before they become significant problems. Be sure you know where you stand (are you soliciting feedback from the client?) and promptly take steps to correct any shortcomings the client points out.

Develop your proposal with the client in advance of the RFP. When you're the incumbent, there's no excuse for having to guess which solution or alternative the client might favor. Yet I've seen this happen on several occasions. Begin working on your proposal early, seeking the client's input and agreement on your strategy. This advance access to the client should be a very difficult obstacle for your competitors to overcome.

Make your familiarity advantage obvious in your proposal. Don't fall into the trap of simply preparing a rote response to the RFP. Include the distinct project perspectives and insights that only your firm can claim. You should have a better understanding of the client's biggest concerns, highest priorities, most critical success factors. You know about the hidden risks, the biggest challenges, the greatest frustrations, what has transpired to date and how it impacted the project. Talk about these things in your proposal!

Be honest about your vulnerabilities and tackle them head on. Some incumbents are reluctant to acknowledge these concerns in their proposal. But I prefer being open and proactive. Does the client have some doubts about your ability to take the project to the next stage? Don't avoid this in your proposal; instead make your case for why you're the most qualified to continue the work. Have there been some problems in your relationship with the client? Take responsibility for it, and describe the steps you've taken to prevent such problems from happening again.

Write about how you'll tend the working relationship. Firms rarely say much in their proposals about the relationship with the client, although this is a critical success factor. Why the omission? In part because RFPs usually don't ask firms to address the matter. As the incumbent, you have a distinct advantage here. So be sure to describe in your proposal how you'll manage an effective working relationship. There's a good chance no one else will, and an even better chance that no one else could do so as well as you.

Make it personal. Most A/E firms avoid using first and second person in their proposals, which helps rob them of the human element that makes for effective persuasion. Don't make this mistake, especially as the incumbent where you have an established relationship with the client. Writing in third person as the incumbent comes across as stilted, impersonal, and just weird, to be honest. Don't forget who your audience is. You're not writing to the faceless masses, but to people you know.

So don't squander the built-in advantages you have as the incumbent. Your proposal should clearly reflect the distinct insights and familiarity you have. But because firms often are negligent in nurturing client relationships and leveraging their advantages, competitors have a better chance than you might think to steal clients away. For tips on how to displace the incumbent, check out this earlier post.